For decades, the working class of Britain have been sidelined, patronised or ignored in UK politics – and seen their political voice and power all but gone. In recent months, that dormant political force in Britain has found its voice again – and the establishment is freaking out.
For those with the means to appreciate it, the 90s and noughties turned Britain into a cosmopolitan heaven on earth. Incredible restaurants serving cuisine from around the world, neighbours and friends who grew up in other countries and found a new home here, thriving arts and culture, the sons and daughters of manual workers going to work in a suit rather than overalls, access to university being commonplace and expected. Tony Blair’s transformation of the Labour party from the left wing voice of the labour movement, into a party of the management class was accepted in a time and mood that seems naive and long gone now. Nobody was going to be working class anymore. We were all going to be middle class. We didn’t need to retain that old world working class solidarity. The days of the exploitative capitalist class were over – get with the programme.
Working class people did get with that programme. We largely abandoned our local political meetings, our unions, our community associations. We left political life, almost entirely – doing little more than our duty of turning up to put a cross in a box every four or five years. We stopped doing democracy in our workplaces, our schools, our communities – and many stopped participating in national politics at all, not even voting in general elections.
Nowhere was this felt more starkly than in England and Wales. The nationalism in Scotland and Northern Ireland has continued to keep working class communities engaged in and passionate about politics – and as such, they have a voice that counts.
In England and Wales, a resignation set in during the Blair/Brown era. While city centres transformed, glamorous looking PFI-funded schools popped up, NHS buildings turned from institutional grey to looking like international airport terminals, and arts, culture and food exploded in colour and diversity – a whole section of the population saw things start to go pear-shaped. One case study highlighted by our writer Steve Topple recently sums this up perfectly. The story of Middlesborough:
The town was ranked as the most deprived in England in 2015, based on the number of areas it has that are considered to be impoverished. Over half its neighbourhoods were living in deprivation; an increase on 2010 statistics, and the town has been in the top ten since 2004.
Other key statistics are:
- One in five children die as infants in Middlesbrough who would not have died elsewhere;
- The average lifespan for a boy is two-and-a-half years less than the national average;
- More than 10% of babies have a low birth weight compared with just over 7% nationally, which has been linked to the rising incidence of children with complex needs;
- The number of Child Protection Plans in place in Middlesbrough is double the national average with the number of looked-after children 88% higher than the national average.
This all paints a sadly disturbing picture of one of the North East’s largest towns. But it is also a damning indictment of an area which has always been a Labour stronghold.
The town has a Labour MP, Andy McDonald, who won his seat at the 2015 general election with an increased majority of 38.1%; the council is Labour controlled by a huge margin, holding 32 out of 47 seats, and even the Mayor is a Labour one.
It is towns and cities like Middlesbrough that voted to leave the EU.
Having been routinely overlooked, lied to, and left out of UK politics – these towns and their working class inhabitants decided to send a message: ignore us at your peril.
Yes, it will be these very voters who feel the effects of a Brexit fastest and hardest. It will be their jobs that go, their houses that get foreclosed upon, their children who live with the economic uncertainty and so on. But this is not new to them, because they’ve been suffering through such conditions for decades and nobody cared or offered a way out.
But people didn’t just vote for Brexit. The right wing political voices are voting and agitating for UKIP, and the left wing are voting and agitating for the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and Corbyn’s Labour. This engagement is happening in record numbers.
Back in 2011, political party membership in the UK was at an all time low; just 0.8% of eligible adults in the UK were members of political parties, versus 3.8% in 1983. But while general membership was in decline, membership of ‘other’ parties was on a steep rise. This was a signpost that perhaps the problem was not the apathy of the public to politics, but the apathy of the political class to the aspirations and values of the public.
But since the No Vote in Scotland, the rise of the SNP and Greens north of the border, and the victory of Corbyn – large sections of the public are re-engaging with the political system in ways not witnessed for decades.
With its fresh arrivals, the Labour Party now has around 500,000 members – easily surpassing Tony Blair’s peak of 405,000. They have more members now than the Conservatives (134,000), Liberal Democrats (61,000) and Greens (60,000) combined.Furthermore, affiliated organisations such as unions and Momentum are also seeing a spike in membership and participation. People are not just saying they might vote in the next election for once, they are becoming active members of political parties – many for the first time in their lives. A movement is happening. We are witnessing the rise of a modern day labour movement, which organises online and offline, and is able to shape the future of our nation.
We might have expected Conservatives to recoil in horror at this development, but this movement has been decried by the entire media and political establishment – including the ‘liberal’ wing.
Why? Because for a very long time now, working class participation in politics was delegated to what I term as the ‘rioja liberals’. These are formerly working class, or middle class political representatives, pundits and campaigners who lament, moist-eyed, the plight of the working class over a glass of red wine, but are repulsed with fear by the thought of working class people actually leading political movements here in Britain. Working class people are to be pitied, fetishised, but not respected or given any real political power.
I’m as partial to a glass of rioja as the next woman, but I have experienced an ever-growing frustration with the rioja liberals. They espouse liberal, egalitarian-sounding concerns, and bemoan the economics and politics that brought us the catastrophe of bogus austerity. But when the SNP took Scotland, and Corbyn became Labour leader, they absolutely lost it. They reacted to the rise of genuine working class, anti-austerity politics like there were riots in the streets, and all sense of order had been lost. They told me that we all needed to ‘get real’ and replace Corbyn with someone ‘electable’ – despite Labour having more electoral and popular success in the last 10 months than in the previous 10 years. They railed at Momentum, SNP voters, Scottish Independence voters, Corbyn supporters and indeed the few media outlets welcoming the advent of all of the above, as antisemites, racists, sexists, bigots, lunatics, conspiracy theorists, extremists. No smear was too exaggerated to fill their lips, grace their newspaper columns, and litter their speeches.
They are afraid because they are now forced into facing working class concerns, put forward by working class people, in working class terms. Their political meetings are now not conducted in the rarefied atmosphere of an Oxbridge debating society, but with the passion and language of a local labour club. The presence of such passion and such visceral anger is unfamiliar and alarming to a class of people who do not share it.
The words ‘moderate’ and ‘militant’ have been hijacked for their own PR purposes. When they say ‘moderate’, they mean middle class. When they say ‘militant’, they mean working class.
Rather than empathising with the manifest woes and incredible hope that propelled the working class back into politics, the rioja liberals denounce them all as mad, bad and dangerous. These rioja liberals are are every bit as much a part of the establishment as the Queen and Black Rod. They have become part of a permanent political class.
The permanent political class is freaking out because the long-sidelined working classes of Britain are galvanizing into a labour movement. A Tory-lite Labour opposition was and is never going to win in 2020, but an energetic and awakened labour movement can. Even worse (from the point of view of the establishment), if they do win, there is a very real chance that the domestic and foreign policy of Britain could transform in a truly radical way. We could be a few months or years away from the most progressive government since Clement Attlee’s post-WWII government delivered the NHS, a national education system, nationalised transport and energy, and rolled out the biggest social housing programme in our history. This is an electoral choice that the UK hasn’t had the opportunity to make in decades.
Those in the permanent political class are facing the most real and present threat to their power since 1979. They are going to throw every weapon in their armoury at ensuring that doesn’t happen. But none of those weapons is more powerful than a tight-knit, grass roots movement with its eye on a shared vision of an inspiring future. They don’t fear Corbyn because he might be unelectable, they fear him because he, and the movement he represents, might be unstoppable.
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Contact their MPs to express their support.
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Featured image from Flickr/Garry Knight